I live and work in Zip Code 72204 and in case you don’t recognize it, that postal code describes a geographical zone south of I-630 that has the worst statistics in Little Rock—worst crime rate, most poverty, highest rate of hunger—you name it. But it’s where my church, the Mosaic Church, is located and where I choose to work.
The church reaches out to our community hoping to help meet the many needs reflected in its dire statistics. Not long ago, as I was looking at our budget for the last fiscal year, I discovered something about our work fighting hunger via our weekly food pantry, the Orchard, that really struck me as significant. Finally some statistics that are not bleak but actually encouraging! Here are the numbers:
Statistically, more than 20 percent of the people living in 72204, or 2,700 families, fall below the poverty line. And our pantry has served 17,574 individuals, representing 2,563 families in our Zip Code. It turns out that our food pantry is reaching an amazing 94.68 percent of the people living in poverty in 72204.
And further, our budget to do this is so little, so small, that it takes my breath away. Our entire pantry budget last year was between $8,000 and $10,000.
Let's call it our version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Here’s how the whole thing works:
Every Tuesday morning, volunteers take a pickup truck and trailer to the Arkansas Foodbank on 65th Street, a warehouse that collects food to distribute to hunger agencies and food pantries like ours.
By choosing carefully, for a few hundred dollars we are able to fill up a 15-foot trailer with canned goods, meat, milk and fresh produce, much of it donated by Kroger, Target, Walmart and Sam’s Club and other food suppliers in Little Rock and collected by the Foodbank’s truck drivers, who make regular rounds of the participating stores.
The food includes imperfect fruits and vegetables, stained or dented cans, things past their “sell by” dates, and, indeed, anything unsuitable for retail sale. But it's all perfectly fine to eat, and most of it is like the food you get at a grocery store. Brand names and everything.
The Foodbank also acquires food through a national Feeding America network that works cooperatively with producers — a truckload of oranges from Texas, a load of canned goods from Illinois, and so forth. Transportation costs average 18 cents a pound, and that’s our cost -- what we reimburse the Foodbank -- but much of the food and most of the produce comes without any cost to us.
The Foodbank also gets food from food drives, like the Summer Cereal Drive, holiday drives, business and school food drives, plus the results of “gleaning” of farmers’ fields by the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and other sources. It all adds up.
At the Foodbank's warehouse, workers with fork lifts and pallet jacks collect the food we’ve selected, put it on pallets, weigh it, and help load it onto our trailer. It’s about a 15-minute drive back to the church, on Colonel Glenn Road not far from UALR.
When the trailer arrives at the church, more volunteers unload it, sort it, and arrange it on long tables so people coming through a line can select the things they will use.
After we’re set up, all the volunteers join in a prayer circle, and a time for sharing concerns. We join hands and have a moment of blessing. Volunteers are the key to the Orchard’s success, and I should mention the very able head of the pantry, Linda Miles. They’re a diverse group, young old, in school, retired. But all want to help.
We open the doors at 2 p.m., and our volunteers greet people coming to the pantry, do a little paperwork so we’ll know who we’re serving, and then help them fill their boxes with food.
We see working people, people on disability, the elderly, people out of a job, people with crushing medical debt, people with mental illness, people with cancer. Sometimes we have a little health clinic and check blood pressure and other vital signs. Once one of the people we checked had such high blood pressure he needed to go to the emergency room immediately, but he refused to leave until he had gotten a box of food for his family. So we see many indicators that we are serving a desperate need.
And we know we are not alone. In central and southern Arkansas, 300 pantries and other hunger relief agencies rely on the Foodbank as an important resource to fulfill their mission. There’s probably one near you. And the six Feeding America food banks in Arkansas supply pantries throughout the whole state.
We are just grateful to be able to do so much with so little.
Cesar Ortega is Community Engagement Pastor at the Mosaic Church in Little Rock's Zip Code 72204.